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UNSW tools enable organisations to efficiently assess sustainability of activities

Researchers at UNSW have created tools that enable businesses and governments to assess how sustainable their activities are, which they can then compare with other jurisdictions locally and globally.

Announced in January, the initiative is being led by Professor Tommy Wiedmann at UNSW’s School of Civil and Environmental Engineering and a team at the Industrial Ecology Virtual Laboratory (IELab).

The tools enable the environmental impact for any product to be assed at any time, according to Wiedmann.

“We call this the total footprint. So if we sum up all the impacts along the production and supply chain of a product, this gives us the total environmental footprint of that product. And we then have a measure that we can compare to different organisations and different products,” he explained.

In the global economy, much of what people, organisations and governments choose to buy – whether out of necessity or desire – has been produced overseas by businesses that have their own environmental impact. Wiedmann wants governments and consumers to start owning that indirect, external impact.

“This hasn’t really been looked at before. Sure, our cities and our towns can do something about their carbon emissions through things like using renewable energy and reusing waste, but they should also keep an eye on how they can influence patterns of consumption. A good place to start is by encouraging sharing of goods or services so people don’t have to buy new stuff all the time.”

Wiedmann explained that to truly minimise environmental impact, organisations also need to understand the impact of their external industrial partners.

“When we look at an individual’s or a company’s activity, we’ll look at the direct impact their activities have, such as machinery used, fuel consumed, whether they add waste products to the environment, and even whether they generate noise.

“But there will be an indirect impact as well – Where did the materials come from, what energy did the supplier of those materials expend, did they negatively impact their own local environment, how sustainable are their practices?

“In other words, your footprint goes well beyond your own consumption and practices in your local area, it includes the footprint of your suppliers and partners,” Wiedmann said.

Professor Tommy Wiedmann from UNSW.

The IELab tools and strategies have already been put in motion with companies and local governments.

Sydney’s Inner West Council, which launched ‘Rethink Your Wardrobe’ to encourage clothes swapping as a way to counter the 60,000 tonnes of unwanted clothes that go to landfill each year, used IELab tools.

With IELab, the council has gained a greater awareness of this idea that there is a footprint that it is responsible for that includes emissions and impacts elsewhere. The ‘Rethink Your Wardrobe’ was created in partnership with Green Living Centre and Wear Aware.

‘Rethink Your Wardrobe’ creates a discussion on the impacts of Australia’s growing addiction to fast fashion and what alternatives exist to help lower the impact it has on our environment, a statement from the council explained.

Wiedmann said that getting people and governments to change their habits is a tough assignment as the general growth paradigm that is followed indicates that the more GDP, the better.

“If we are really serious about protecting the climate and trying to get emissions as rapidly down as we have to, if we don’t want to exceed temperature rises of two degrees Celsius, then we have to think about different ways of consuming. But that’s a hard message to sell. Because we have been selling the opposite for decades, right?’”